Movies Till Dawn: A Superfluity of Saturday Morning Strange

The Maze 3D” (1953, Kino Lorber) What is the terrible secret of an ancient Scottish castle and its forbidding hedge maze that has vexed its ex-pat heir (sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson, who would have celebrated his 106th birthday tomorrow)? The answer is absolutely ludicrous, and would be enough for me to recommend this rarely seen, low-budget Gothic thriller, but there’s also a remarkable amount of shivery black-and-white photography and some swell 3D effects, both courtesy of  William Cameron Menzies in his final effort as director. A production designer on “Gone with the Wind” and other A-list titles, Menzies understood that atmosphere and design could disguise a film’s budgetary limitations (see his work on “Chandu the Magician,” also from Kino), and his use of lighting, camerawork and sets (especially the maze) adds a creepy Gothic patina that the loopy script by Daniel Ullman (who adapted a novel by Maurice Sandoz – a member of the pharmaceutical family that developed LSD – that also featured illustrations by Salvador Dali) can’t wipe away. Kino’s Blu-ray offers the 2-D and 3-D versions of “The Maze”; you’ll need a 3-D player to see the latter, but you can still enjoy a sprightly interview with British actress Veronica Hurst, who played Carlson’s fiancée, and commentary by historian Tom Weaver, soundtrack expert David Schecter and others, who discuss the film’s origins and its restoration by the 3-D Film Archive in collaboration with Martin Scorsese and the Film Foundation.

The Cat O’ Nine Tails” (1970, Arrow Video) Journalist James Franciscus and blind crossword puzzle designer Karl Malden discover that a string of grisly murders are linked to a medical institute’s experiments with chromosomes – especially the kind allegedly associated with homicidal behavior. Second directorial effort by Dario Argento is less horror-oriented than its predecessor (“The Bird with the Crystal Plumage“) and closer in pedigree to a straight-ahead and, at times, well-worn mystery, which hasn’t endeared it to Eurocult fans (even Argento doesn’t care much for it), but there’s still enough of the director’s paranoid/voyeuristic flourishes on hand, as well as some splattery murder setpieces and an unnerving score by Ennio Morricone – all of which look and sound exceptionally good on Arrow’s new 4K Blu-ray Informative commentary by Alan Jones and Kim Newman and interviews with Argento and co-writer Dardano Sacchetti anchor the disc, which includes script pages detailing the original, long-lost ending.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space” (1988, Arrow Video) A cross-section of not-very-bright townsfolk discover, far too late, that their rural hamlet (played by Watsonville, California) is under siege by the titular creatures – extraterrestrials that not only resemble but also act like a small and very fearful child’s idea of circus clowns. Horror/sci-fi parody by the Chiodo Brothers (who created puppets and stop-motion effects for “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and “Team America: World Police”) balances its resolutely silly tone with some wickedly funny and imaginative concepts (attack balloon animals, carnivorous popcorn), which helps the film sidestep the leaden meta-humor of most deliberate “cult” efforts. Arrow’s Blu-ray includes early films and commentary by the Chiodos, as well as interviews with the cast and members of the Dickies, who provide the memorable title song.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” (1978, MVD Visual) The U.S. government responds to attacks on its citizens by sentient and hungry tomatoes by assembling a team of experts who, like much of our current cabinet, all prove to be idiots. Like “Killer Klowns,” “Killer Tomatoes” is proudly, almost definitely absurd and unafraid to refuse even the most groan-inducing gag (tomatoes attacking swimmers a la “Jaws,” etc.). That kitchen-sink approach – which, admittedly, also allows for a few genuinely amusing moments (“Puberty Love,” the terrible pop song which proves the tomatoes’ undoing, which is sung by a pre-teen Matt Cameron of Soundgarden) – has somehow granted “Killer Tomatoes” a four-decade lifespan and career for its San Diego-based creators (among them former California State Senator Stephen Peace) that encompasses multiple sequels, a cartoon series (and this oddity) and this deluxe DVD from MVD. Peace and his cohorts provide commentary, and there are deleted scenes, several of their short films (including a trial run for “Tomatoes”) and an interview with the San Diego Chicken (honest), but the most intriguing extra focuses on a very real helicopter crash that happened during filming, and wound up in the completed film.

City of the Dead” (1960, VCI Entertainment) Much to her eventual regret, college student Venetia Stevenson is encouraged (with what some might say a bit too much enthusiasm) by professor Christopher Lee to indulge her interest in the history of witchcraft by visiting his Massachusetts hometown, where accused witches were burned in the 17th century; there, she discovers that Satanic practices are still very much in vogue, and the arrival of a young female stranger is just what’s needed for their upcoming sacrifice. Like “The Maze,” this British production wrings maximum atmosphere from a miniscule budget, and director John Llewellyn Moxey (who later directed some of the best horror-minded TV-movies of the 1970s, including “The Night Stalker) and art director John Blezard employ vast amounts of fog and shadow to transform ordinary sets into a unsettling fearscape that compares favorably to efforts by Hammer and Mario Bava. VCI’s previous DVD/Blu-ray releases of “City” have struggled with technical difficulties, but this limited and remastered Blu-ray edition of the film (the original British version, which retains some dialogue trimmed from the American edition) is an excellent showcase for the film’s atmospherics, and includes commentary by and an interview with the late Lee – a font of information, and a class act, as always – from 2015.

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About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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